The second U.S. Navy America-class amphibious assault ship is now ready for war after arriving at its home port in San Diego, California, a move which further fortifies the service’s emerging, modernized amphibious assault strategy.
The Navy plans to sail the F-35-armed ship around South America soon as a way to refine its preparation and readiness for combat deployment.
The strategy is multi-faceted and intended to include a new mix of air-power projection with drone or unmanned systems operations. Amphibious assault operation preparations are every bit as much of the Navy’s areas of emphasis as ever, yet they continue to take on new tactical forms as more technologies emerge. For example, the USS Tripoli brings a strengthened aviation component to amphibious attack possibilities to leverage the added capacity of the F-35B and upgraded Osprey aircraft. Like the first America-class amphibious assault ship, the USS America, the USS Tripoli is built without a well-deck to allow for greater hangar space for aircraft. The concept is to leverage the added range, air support and attack possibilities made possible by advanced aviation.
“The USS Tripoli is designed to accommodate the Marine Corps’ future Air Combat Element (ACE) including the F-35B Lightning II and MV-22 Osprey,” a Navy report states.
This air-power projection focus does not, however, mean that well-deck-driven amphibious assaults are disappearing longer term. The now already underway third America-class amphibious assault ship will again incorporate a well-deck to facilitate integrated air-surface amphibious attack.
An aviation-centric approach, as well as newer applications of well-decks to facilitate watercraft attack, favors the use of seabasing as an amphibious tactic, enabling large-deck amphibious assault ships to dispatch aerial drones and operate in a command and control capacity at greater stand-off distances. These tactics are enabled by longer-range networking technologies increasingly able to connect forward positioned attack vessels, small boats and unmanned systems to human decision-makers operating in a “mothership” capacity.
The USS America, a first in class for the Navy’s new fleet of amphibious assault ships, completed a successful deployment last year with numerous F-35Bs on board. F-35Bs can not only rely upon stealth technology and long-range sensors to attack enemy forces and air defenses, but small fleets of F-35s can rely upon a common data link to operate as aerial “nodes.”
Previously, LHD amphibious assault ships did not have the F-35B. Adding the fifth-generation platforms brings new weapons and information sharing possibilities, a development which helps to facilitate cross-domain networking and close-air support for air-surface attack. The F-35’s sensors give the platform what could be likened to a drone-like surveillance capability.
This is significant as future amphibious assaults will not only use many more unmanned platforms but also conduct dispersed or “dis-aggregated” operations to decrease vulnerability to enemy fire and leverage networking technologies.
Unmanned systems can help identify points of attack by searching for coastline vulnerabilities and also deliver supplies to forward-operating landing forces. They can also, when controlled by humans, add suppressive fire and function as surveillance nodes across a broad network. All of these kinds of emerging tactical approaches will have much stronger prospects for success by virtue of having the close-air-support provided by an F-35 as well.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This article first appeared earlier this year.